Offering a contemporary spin on a local tavern, this new Busselton local already feels like part of the community.

Since its opening in July, The Banksia Tavern has been winning over Busselton locals with polished retro-vibes, sharp cocktails and contemporary twist on tavern dining.

Co-owners and hospitality veterans Brendan McCarthy and Nathan Headlam opened venues in Cambodia and Melbourne before returning to Western Australia. Here, WAGFG contributing editor Max Brearley speaks with McCarthy about his decision to return home, and how the pair plan to carry out their modern interpretation of a classic Australian tavern.

This is your first venture in Western Australia. Can you tell us a little about your hospitality journey so far?
I spent a lot of time in the music industry when I was younger and that led me to a lot of odd jobs in hospo, in Melbourne predominantly. That’s where I met my business partner Nathan. He was one of the managers at the venue I worked at in Brunswick, around 2009. We were always talking about doing a venue together and then we did, out in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

I’d been doing music for a pretty long time, and I was due a bit of a break. Nathan had been living up there [Phnom Penh] for about 18 months and there was an interesting window where there were a lot of foreigners living there, but not a lot of really decent hospitality offers. It was all a bit of a change for me. We lived up there for a couple of years, opened a whisky bar and a couple of good tiki style cocktail bars.

Was there a reason that you felt the call of home?
The plan was always to try and come back to Australia and do something here. Melbourne initially, where we bought a little cocktail bar in East Brunswick called Eydie’s, and another on High Street in Thornbury, Franklin’s Bar. Lockdown and the subsequent years were pretty tricky, but thankfully we’ve been able to hang on to everything over there.

And so where does Busselton fit into the picture?
My folks have been in Busselton for a very long time and a large part of my youth was down here on family holidays. For a long time, I’ve just been trying to lock down a project over here to enable me to spend a bit more time with family and friends and just bring me back home a little bit more.

Kirsty Marchant from Alberta’s is a very old friend and I actually came back to give them a hand with their opening. A bit of carpentry stuff and then about two months’ worth of service, just to kind of help them where they needed it. It was the catalyst for what would become Banksia Tavern, as around this time the previous operators of Bodega put the site up for sale. I kept an eye on it as it’s got great bones: it’s a great spot.

Does it differ much from your Melbourne venues, and those first ones in Phnom Penh?
The full food offering is something that’s always had a bit of an allure about it; it’s something that we’ve been interested in. It was always just a timing thing for us in Melbourne. The timing felt right, to put together that more holistic offer, and really, we make venues that we would like to go and hang out in ourselves. We wanted something that had a little bit of a classic tinge to it as far as the design and aesthetic go, and a classic Australian tavern-type vibe. That’s what we built the foundation around, and then we just elevate where we can and have a bit of fun with it.

Is there a particular direction you were going with the food? We’ve seen smoked boerewors sausage with peperonata, and charred brassicas with cashew cream. So it’s rustic, but maybe not always expected.
It’s seasonal, very focused on the abundance of local produce and suppliers in the region. That’s something that we’re really excited by, and very happy to be engaging with; week in, week out, we’re seeing a lot of great stuff come through the kitchen. It’s such a produce-rich part of the world and I’m grateful to be immersed in that. We designed the menu, both food and beverage, to get us over the line for opening. We’re looking to experiment and to push a bit more now; rolling out our expanded beverage offer, and with more classic Australian tavern meals, elevating where we can.

And with the drinks program, you’re focused on Western Australia, yes?
We’re running an eight-tap system and when it comes to beer, that’s just another one of the benefits of being in such a great part of the world, with really strong local breweries. It is predominantly local wines but we’ve got a lot of other good stuff coming from overseas. Whisky is obviously a big part of our hospitality history, so that’ll be a pretty considered offer as we roll things out further.

Cocktails have formed a big part of your previous openings; how do they figure?
As far as cocktails are concerned, a lot of syrup-based recipes using local ingredients and then tapping into your more classic cocktails. Nothing’s ever going to be set in stone when it comes to beverages. There’s just so much great stuff happening, not only across beer and wine but on the spirits side of things. We were chatting to the guys from Beyond Distilling about all the great stuff they’re doing. You’d be silly to ignore what’s going on in the Australian industry, utilizing a lot of native grains. It’s really cool to see that coming to the fore, and we’re looking forward to diving in and getting involved.

Banksia Tavern, 43 Prince Street, Busselton;

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